Author Kathy-Diane Leveille ~ Interviewed

Kathy-Diane Leveille is a former broadcast journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who discovered the only thing more thrilling than reading a wonderful story is harnessing the power of the imagination to write one. Her short story collection Roads Unravelling was published to critical acclaim after a selection from its pages Learning to Spin was adapted to radio drama for CBC’s Summer Drama Festival. The tale Showdown at the Four Corner’s Corral was revised for the stage and performed by New City Theater in Saint John.

Kathy-Diane’s prose has been published in a number of literary journals including Grain, Room of One’s Own, The Oklahoma Review, Pottersfield Portfolio, The Cormorant; as well as various anthologies such as Water Studies: New Voices in Maritime Fiction (Pottersfield Press) and New Brunswick Short Stories (Neptune).

She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, Kiss of Death RWA and Crimewriters of Canada.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I had so much fun writing my new suspense novel. It’s fascinating to see how my initial idea has grown into the multi-layered plot of Let the Shadows Fall Behind You:

On a grey morning in Northern Ontario in 1978, when the first fat snowflakes drifted down erasing all the familiar landmarks, Nikolai Mirsky headed out the door of the haunted cabin he shared with his lover, Brannagh Maloney. And disappeared…

Brannagh, a Natural Science Illustrator, struggled to collate the data from their bird count through the long winter. By the time the icicles began to melt, she was filled with a growing dread that the infamous wilderness preservationist wasn’t returning.

When Brannagh left New Brunswick, ten years ago, she swore it was for good. But now her best friend, Annie, won’t stop worrying about her, and won’t stop hounding her to come back for a reunion of their childhood all-girls club The Tuatha-de-Dannans. Brannagh finally relents, but she refuses to go to her childhood home and face her irascible Grandfather. Instead, she hides out at her Grandmother’s summer cottage, even though it is far too close to the woods where her mother was murdered. As Brannagh struggles to put to rest the questions surrounding Nikki’s disappearance, she finds it impossible to ignore the family secrets circling the most tragic disappearance of all. Brannagh learns that nothing magical will ever change her past, but the fierce love of friends holds the power to transform the future.

Share a bit about your unique writing journey.

I’m a former broadcast journalist with CBC radio. Seventeen years ago, when I was home on maternity leave with my youngest son, I dug out an old file of story ideas and started scribbling. By the time the date arrived when I was supposed to return to work, I had already decided that I didn’t want to keep putting my dream of writing fiction on the back burner. Since then I’ve done different jobs, including being a janitor and typing medical transcription, to give me the time and energy to pursue my passion. My first book Roads Unravelling, a collection of short stories set on the Kennebecasis River where I live, was published a few years ago. Let the Shadows Fall Behind You released this spring is my first novel.

How has your experience as a broadcast journalist prepared or hindered you as a novelist?

Working in the field of journalism offers valuable training in discipline. You’re working to a deadline to produce stories whether you like it or not. There were many times I sat down at the computer with absolutely no idea of where to go. You learn in journalism to have faith in the process, that you can start with nothing and eventually something will take shape and grow. It was a tremendous mentorship in the art of research, fact checking and honing the 5 W’s.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

The most difficult thing about writing is returning to the page when the initial excitement over a story idea has worn off and I’m riddled with doubts about my ability to translate the vision to the reader. However, I’ve learned through the years that I must keep going back. Eventually the doubts fade; something sparks, and I fall in love with my characters all over again. It is that moment, ironically, that becomes the most uplifting, because I always learn from my character’s journeys.

I believe writers block comes with the territory. At first, I despair, convinced whatever I’m working on should be tossed. But usually after reflection, a long walk or a trip to the library, I realize I need a break from the writing. For me writer’s block comes because the well is dry. I need to get out and enjoy life. It usually takes 1-2 days before suddenly a window opens in the block (when I’m doing something totally mundane like having my tooth drilled), and suddenly I’m antsy to be set free to grab a pen and paper.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I think if I had had access to seasoned professionals in the industry sooner, I might have learned a lot faster about what it takes to survive and thrive in today’s publishing world. Living on the Canadian east coast, it’s pretty isolated from the hub of the industry. You absolutely have to know the business, how it works and its current needs to give yourself a leg up. I think I was too naïve in believing that all I needed to do was write well and the work would find a home on its own. In some instances this can happen, but the greater reality is that selling books is a business, and one that is constantly changing. I romanticized the industry when I needed to view myself as a business woman.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Rule number one: Write. Rule number two: Write. Rule number three: Write some more. I think it’s important to exercise your true voice, test it, settle into its strengths and weaknesses, and learn to trust it BEFORE you attend workshops. If you attend ‘how to’ sessions too soon, the tendency is to try and act on the information with the left brain and copycat what is being taught. If, however, you already write in your true voice, you will trust your gut instinct to take the information taught and adapt any parts of it to your style to enhance it, and discard the rest. How do you know if you’re writing in your true voice? The words catch fire, the room disappears and you are humming along on that magic carpet in your imagination.

Rule number two: Devote at least half as much time as you spend writing to learning the publishing business.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I love riding in the car or on a train and gazing out the window. There’s always something in the landscape to twig my imagination. Once it was a chair in the middle of a field. I started wondering who put it there and why. The short story The Chair in my first book Roads Unravelling was born.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

I wrote my first poem when I was in Grade 1:

Oh Father Dear, I’m glad you’re here

So we can celebrate this day, with a Doran’s beer.

Of course I didn’t understand why my teacher’s eyes rounded with horror when she read it. That was my first lesson in discovering that not everyone will welcome the truth in what you write.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite part is being published. There is no feeling like it. Picture the arrival of Christmas morning, the thrill of hearing a newborn’s cry and the rush of your first kiss all rolled into one. My husband and I went out for dinner. He’s my number one cheerleader and gets more excited than I do!

My least favorite part is getting a rejection letter in the mail. Rejection of the work you’ve spent so much time on is always a blow. The only cure for my disappointment has always been writing. Before you know it, I’m caught up in the characters and the mystery of their journey again. Sometimes it helps to work on a completely different project. If anything, I figure I must have learned something by now to make this one come closer to the mark.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I have a large chair that could fit 3 people in its lap. It allows me to keep lots of books, pads of paper and pens by my side. Directly across from the chair is a large picture window three-quarters sky and one-quarter river that is constantly shifting in light and color.

I usually start with a pen and pad for the inspiration stage, then move to the computer for the perspiration stage. When I get to a place where I’m uncertain as to how to proceed, I always go back to pen and paper. I think there’s some mechanism in that tactile exercise that frees the right brain to soar.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I usually begin by simultaneously visualizing a situation that causes an upheaval in life, and hearing a character’s voice emote their reaction to it. It’s a very strange process and definitely has my husband worried some days; especially when he dusts the books on my research shelf: Handbook of Poisons and Crime Scene Investigation.

Northumberland Straight Jacket was my first attempt at a suspense novel. It wasn’t published because my plot was a disaster. I had no idea how to plot period, so I kept going off on one tangent after another, and ended up nowhere. The good news is that while writing that novel I learned a lot about character development and setting, so when I tackled my second novel, I could focus my energy on plot alone and finally begin to dissect its mechanics. I had to write three or four in order to learn the many elements involved, and I’m still learning. I can remember that feeling of breaking through, however, when I knew that I was finally juggling all the balls of character, setting, plot, theme, pacing and not dropping any. It was, and is, tremendously satisfying.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

Funny you should ask. This week I was struggling with a saggy middle. Every novel I’ve ever written grows a spare tire. My solution is to walk away and take a good long break. I then approach the middle as if it is the beginning of my novel, i.e. with a lot of energy and fresh ideas. The biggest problem with the middle is that I’m running out of energy and just want to cross that finish line. I need to treat the middle with the attention and respect it deserves. Luckily, with time, I’ve learned to hang around until the magic happens.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Read, read, read. Study the kind of book you want to write and dissect it. Read for pure pleasure and soak up the brilliance between the pages. I am one of those strange creatures who read 5 books at once. I need at least one literary novel (to admire the poetry), one mystery/suspense (pure entertainment), one self-help (new goals), one autobiography (inspiration) and lots of non-fiction (to keep the grey-cells firing). A really good book always creates a craving in me to schmooze with the page.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

My mother sewed paper together for me so I could write books when I played library, but I really didn’t have any desire to write until I was in Grade 6. I was secretly in love with our new teacher from Toronto, Miss Matthews. (Yes, she was the inspiration for the character, Miss Matthews, in Let the Shadows Fall Behind You.) One day Miss Matthew glided to my desk, scarf fluttering, filling my nose with the delicate scent of her cologne. She announced that she loved the story I’d written, and that it would make a smashing radio play. I was stunned. I had had no idea that the words I scribbling like mad could actually elicit such a strong and positive response in someone else. It was my first inkling that words were powerful. I wrote and produced a few radio dramas that year, and also wrote and directed the class Christmas play.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Never give up. Never give up. And, also, never give up.

Roads Unravelling was rejected by a few dozen publishers. Editors kept telling me I was wasting my time because short story publications aren’t worth publishing any more as no one wants to read them. Then I had two offers, and chose the publisher who carried the manuscript around in her briefcase for weeks, because she wanted to dig the stories out and read them every spare minute she had.

Let the Shadows Fall Behind You was rejected by a few dozen publishers. Editors kept telling me that I was wasting my time because readers weren’t sophisticated enough to follow three time lines. Then Kunati Books called, and said it was a fine novel, and could they publish it, please?

Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest and meeting all your readers. Please let me know what you think of Let the Shadows Fall Behind You at I’d love to hear from you.

Happy Reading!